Look, I have a confession. I have, from time to time, stood in front of an unruly class and wondered what on earth I’m going to do to get them to do what I need them to do. I know what some might say – why should they do what you want them to do? But that way madness lies. Perhaps those moments of weakness have made me a bad teacher, but I’d hazard a guess that we all have had them. Or the class that nothing seemed to work for. Or the kid. So I imagine that many teachers woke up this morning thinking that the new report from Ofsted would be a step forward – an offer of help and support perhaps? Of course not.
Based on surveys of teachers and parents (many of whom seemed to think that a] low level disruption from other people’s children was a problem holding their child back and b] it was not being carried out by their child), the report came to some disappointing conclusions:-
1. If headteachers stand out in corridors and are less friendly then disruption will stop.
2. Teachers are too soft.
Let’s pop those points under the microscope shall we?
1. Visible Heads.
I think it is important for a headteacher to be a highly visible and active presence in a school – of course it is. It helps children to build relationships with the captain of the ship and that’s an important thing. It’s also good to have them around if things kick off. But doing so in a manner that is designed to purely show kids who is boss is doomed to failure. And being a presence counts for nothing if the systems in place are not fit for purpose. At my last school, staff constantly raised concerns at meetings about low level disruption in class. I’ll come to our own culpability in this shortly, but let’s shine a light on processes and procedures here. The response was “most of the children in the school behave impeccably”. This was true. But the ones who didn’t were really making it difficult for lessons to flow. So a solution was introduced. A tiered warning system. This is how it worked for me…
C1 – verbal warning for small misdemeanours like not having equipment or entering the room rowdily or chatting at the start of the lesson. On average, I’d say that 10-15 pupils in each class would have had this warning if all teachers followed the procedure.
C2 – second warning – a note in the planner. I won’t go into the farce that is trying to get a note in planner that is repeatedly ‘forgotten’. Assuming it’s there, and kids being kids and trying to be consistent with all, a C2 could be issued to six kids or more. And it’s important to issue it, no matter how tricky, because consistency is important, right? So that’s 12 minutes I then had to find at the end of each lesson to write in planners. And I taught at opposite ends of the school. And I started to wonder which routine was most important – being there on time to greet pupils and have an orderly start or adhering to school policy. By the end of the day, I’d spent an hour writing in planners. And had missed an hour of lessons or duty to be able to do it.
C3 – Detention. Maybe one child a day. Usually one who has just necked one of those concentrated Robinson’s fruit drinks or a Monster can of madness. Might the Ofsted report have considered the impact of sugar on this issue? Of course not. Might they have suggested that parents had a responsibility to make sure that their children were not so high on sugar and additives that it’s sometimes a miracle we can keep them from throwing themselves out of the window? Of course not. So detention is issued. And for some children that means booking an appointment six months in advance. For many kids, school days have been extended forever. Perhaps they tolerate detentions as the price they pay for having a good time for the rest of the day. Or perhaps they don’t mind because they don’t actually want to go home. So at the end of the day, I rushed from my lesson (assuming I hadn’t just had to spend 12 minutes writing in planners) in order to try to catch whoever had a detention before they legged it. I’d take them to the inevitable meeting with me. And on the way I’d try to make a phone call to the parent of the kid I’d be seeing the following day. All while also trying to call back all the parents who had left messages to enquire or complain about the note I wrote in their child’s planner. It was frankly, a pain in the arse and the temptation to just not write the note, or issue the detention was overwhelming. But we mustn’t give in, right, or there will be chaos? Except things don’t get better, because at the end of the day, detentions just don’t work.
C4 – Removal from the class. Hit the ‘On Call’ button. Ten minutes later, if you’re lucky, a harassed person arrives at your door with a string of kids behind them. There isn’t actually anywhere to take a child when they are On Called except your office. And only a nutter would leave a child unattended in their office. I hit the button twice in my career. I regretted it both times. The lesson was almost over by the time they went, but then I had to log it on the system – a procedure so complex that it would be easier to take over the management of the CERN Hadron Collider. Then I have to schedule a detention, call the parents and …. well you’ve got it. I might as well have stuck with C3 because there is no consequence for a C4 that doesn’t just involve more work for the teacher.
All in all, it’s an utterly unworkable system in which nothing is achieved. But that’s not to say that I think headteachers should suddenly start kicking kids out. Or turning into Judge Dread. Because that kid who told you to ‘fuck off’ found his Dad hanging in a garage. The one who is constantly tapping on the table is in pain with her IBS and the tapping is a subconscious distraction from the pain. And when a Head hears these tales, they use their judgement to decide what to do. Compassion is important. It matters and these problems need to be handled on a child by child, day by day basis.
In zero tolerance schools like KIPP in the US, there is a hugely disproportionate rate of exclusions for children with SEN or from ethnic minorities. Too often our schools don’t take any account of the complex needs of our children – either in terms of their cognition and socialisation or their home culture. We need to attend more to this – throwing children out of school is a failure of the system. It should never be rejoiced as I’ve seen some unscrupulous senior managers in Academies do, or be seen as anything but a very last resort. And for those children who simply cannot cope in mainstream education, we need to properly fund alternative provisions so that they are all entitled to the quality of education and support that is offered at places like Springwell in Barnsley.
But those are the high level disrupters and this report focuses on the low level. What of them? Are teachers too soft?
2. “Teachers – grow a pair!” (an extract that didn’t quite make its way into the report, but was there in the subtext).
There were several references in the report to informality and even dress, making a very bold assumption that informality breeds contempt. Where is the evidence for this? I work a lot in International Schools, where children rarely wear uniform. Sometimes they call members of staff by their first names, especially in High School. And here, in sixth form colleges and FE colleges, it is routine to be on first name terms with tutors and not to have uniform. And yet standards of behaviour in these settings are excellent. There is a clear difference between open, friendly and informal relationships between staff and pupils and poor consistency and expectations. The report has really confused these two things and there is a strong flavour that personal preference is over-riding evidence in this matter.
Children need boundaries. They need to know that you are trying to be fair and consistent (and they’re pretty good at recognising that fairness is not always the same as treating everyone in exactly the same way). But whether or not their uniform (or yours) impacts on those issues is unproven. It’s a silly correlation. I wish the report had spent more time asking the following questions:-
1. What impact is diet having on behaviour? What could we do to ensure that parents don’t give their children cash to go to the shop on the way to school?
2. To what extent are we feeding a culture of low respect and tolerance for each other, by placing far more emphasis on exam results than personal character?
3. To what extent do politicians, Ofsted and the media shape the opinions of parents? And in belittling and blaming the profession, do they create a lack of respect for the profession in parents’ minds that then gets passed onto their children? I’ve had, on more than one occasion, a parent demand that their child be excused from a detention for spurious reasons and had to deal with some fairly rude and dismissive comments about getting a ‘real’ job and knowing what ‘hard work looks like’. This attitude comes directly from our media and it is fed by politicians. Sort your own houses out first.
4. When we teachers blame each other for not following the system and letting the team down, how often do we think whether or not it is just harder for some people than others. People who don’t have their own classrooms, or are teaching subjects where it’s just not practical to have planners out on desks. You’re in a field for example. Is consistency really the better option, or should we find solutions at departmental levels?
5. We should be teaching lessons worth behaving for. Too many of us think that resilience is about enduring boredom. It’s not. And there are very few adolescents who can tolerate sitting and listening for 5 hours or more without needing to move about and talk.
It always depresses me when complex problems – and don’t get me wrong, this is a problem – when complex problems are met with simplistic solutions. When they are used as an excuse to push forward a favourite ideology. When they are used to avoid looking at bigger questions.
This year, Harvard university published a report’Making Caring Common’ which examined why it was that children were placing their own needs ahead of others and why their ability to empathise was falling. The answers were complex, but in a nutshell, we, as a society are not prioritising empathy, respect and care as we raise our young. It is absent from our curriculum. We press for individual achievement and personal happiness above community responsibility. Is it really any wonder then that we are finding this lack of respect and empathy in our classrooms? Surely, instead of blaming Heads, teachers and children, we should start to look at ourselves as a society and ask some serious questions about how we educate our young.